By John Held, Jr.
Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind’s Eye
November 3, 2012 – February 3, 2013
Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective
November 3, 2012 – February 3, 2013
These are two of my favorite artists. Their opening on the same day in the same museum is duly noted as something verging on more than coincidence. They both have great personal stories to tell. Watching C-Span on February 15, 2011 and witnessing Jasper Johns standing between Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, made me proud of all studio artists. On the other hand, Jay DeFeo, although having been in the important 1960 MoMA/NY exhibition, “16 Americans” with Jasper Johns, is profoundly underrated. I probably only know of her, because I’m a Bay Area resident and make a point of following the area’s artistic heritage.
I love their work for the same reason. They both developed techniques in abstract art, which I thought, were perfect vehicles for expressing the unknown, the mystery of life, their personal quest, the great adventure…call it what you will. For Johns, it’s his use of the hatch. Most critics, including those in the exhibition catalog, call it crosshatching. It’s not. There is no hatch over hatch. There are hatches of different colors and patterns, rendered in various manners, both tight and loose, in several mediums, over four decades. They do not overlap. Why do the call it crosshatching? I don’t get it.
What I do get, is that Johns found a way to express something that needed to get out, and once it was out, found it a perfect structure on which to create. He has stated that the hatchings were first witnessed when he sped past another car on which the pattern was painted. He recreated them as he remembered them, reexamining the fleeting vision of the hatchings and the reasons they fascinated him.
This relates to another of series, mentioned by Gary Garrels at the press opening of the exhibition, initiated when Johns was attending a John Cage Concert at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco and witnessed a flickering light, which he traced to a reflected woman’s compact. Again, it resulted in John’s trying to recreate a fleeting experience.
I don’t think anyone has ever linked Jay De Feo and her masterpiece, “The Rose,” with the term “fleeting experience.” On the contrary, the legendary lengthy progression of the work, composed in full view of visiting friends, gradually progressing over a sustained period, all the while linked with her marriage to fellow artist Wally Hedrick, who told her he was going to divorce her when she finished the damn thing, was anything but fleeting. Eight years, from 1958-1966, she pondered it. But if you look at, “The Rose,” stare into it, you get that same feeling you receive from a John’s hatching. That it’s a path into the unknown, a meditation on life and the process of life, rising from a vision.
The similarity of spirit between the two artists is amplified by the fact that John’s hatchings and the “rays” of De Feo’s “Rose” bear resemblances, most instructively, parallel lines as underlying structure. In John’s case the hatchings are apparently scattered randomly (although I don’t doubt for a second that the artist has his own reasons for their positioning), while DeFeo’s rays follow a traditional receding perspective, the thickness of the paint application riffing on the work’s composition journey toward the center.
These are just minor details in the midst of two shows capable of generating huge amounts of intellectual discourse and visual wonder. A lot more can be said about these two shows – and will. They are both terrific. In the case of DeFeo, and her scarce exhibition record – revelatory. It’s simply the best artist retrospective I’ve witnessed since Bruce Conner’s at the De Young in 2000. And John’s is never to be missed. After witnessing retrospectives, it seems a bit thin, but so what. We’re just lucky the artist favors Curator Garrels and the Museum. I’m really pissed SFMOMA is closing down…but what a way to go.